KAILUA-KONA — A bill that would have abolished aquarium fishing in Hawaii cleared its first committee Wednesday, but not before its purpose was significantly amended.
Sen. Kaiali‘i Kahele (D-Hilo) introduced Senate Bill 931, passing it through the Senate Committee on Water and Land, which he chairs.
However, he altered the measure’s original language banning all methods of aquarium fishing in favor of placing a moratorium on the practice along with the use of fine mesh nets or traps. The moratorium would be repealed on June 30, 2021, and a decision on the fate of the industry would be made then.
In the interim, an environmental impact study (EIS) would be conducted by the Research Corporation of the University of Hawaii, which was another of Kahele’s amendments.
“There has never been an environmental impact statement done for the West Hawaii fishery,” he said. “It needs to be objective. It needs to be with no inherent conflict of interest. It should not have any bias in it, and I think the only way to do that is take it out of (the Department of Land and Natural Resources) wheelhouse.”
The measure’s original language contends aquarium fishing isn’t in step with traditional Native Hawaiian values and cultural practices such as living in harmony with nature and collecting natural resources in amounts commensurate with the necessities of subsistence.
Kahele said he believes that to be true but added no laws should be passed solely on such a basis.
“I’m not willing to ban aquarium fishing on that premise because that’s a very slippery slope when you do that. And where does it end?” he said. “I think it’s a very dangerous precedent to set unless it is substantiated by a comprehensive cultural impact assessment.”
A cultural impact assessment (CIA) is also part of the amended version of SB931, which moves next to the Senate Committee on Judiciary.
While Kahele’s edits leave some light at the end of the tunnel for between 100 and 200 fishermen who held active aquarium permits in 2018, the practice is already under a court-ordered suspension throughout Hawaii.
The State Supreme Court suspended aquarium fishing in September 2017. The decision served as resolution to a five-year legal battle after plaintiffs sued the DLNR for failing to comply with the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act by not adequately documenting environmental impacts of aquarium fishing before issuing permits.
Subsequent rulings by Hawaii’s First Circuit Court, sitting as the Environmental Court, upheld the Supreme Court’s decision and took further steps to halt the practice until the DLNR came into compliance.
As a result, no legal aquarium fishing has taken place in West Hawaii waters for more than a year. DLNR statistics indicate take of aquarium fish around Oahu continues and has increased significantly in East Hawaii during that time.
The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, which represents the multi-million dollar aquarium fishing industry in Hawaii, commissioned two environmental assessments for Hawaii Island and Oahu, respectively, in an attempt to have permits re-validated. Those EAs noted findings of no significant impact.
But Suzanne Case, chairwoman of the Board of Land and Natural Resources, deemed an EIS necessary in July after reviewing the EAs. The EIS, however, would also be commissioned by the aquarium fishing industry, which is where Kahele’s concerns of bias enter the equation.
“I have zero confidence in the aquarium trade’s environmental assessment, which I think was woefully inadequate,” said Kahele, adding he believes its EIS would present the same cause for concern.
As part of his amended measure, the state would put up $500,000 for the purposes of an EIS and accompanying CIA conducted by the University of Hawaii in concert with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Aha Moku Advisory Council and the Hunting, Farming and Fishing Association.
Kahele’s amendments also mandate the DLNR create a Marine Aquarium Fishing Advisory Group “to monitor activities addressed by this act” as well as to assist in the development of the aforementioned EIS and CIA.
The amended bill calls for a report by the UH Research Corporation by the start of the 2020 legislative session and the acceptance of the EIS by the governor 20 days before the 2021 legislative session opens.
If Kahele’s proposed EIS ruled aquarium fishing sustainable, it would likely change the permitting process as well as what permits would actually allow.
Formerly, recreational permits allowed for the capture of nearly 2,000 fish annually using fine mesh nets or traps. Considering the number of active permits in 2018, upward of 250,000 fish could potentially be caught and sold every year. Aquarium fishing permits were not capped.
Opponents of the industry note the DLNR has also never imposed a cap on the number of permits issued. Those who applied for permits did so online at low cost and were not questioned during the process on the types of fish they sought, how many they planned to catch or where they planned to catch them.
“Maybe (the EIS) comes back and says the fishery can be sustainable but we need to further restrict bag limits, we need to change the whitelist species of fish, we need to change the method of collection,” said Kahele, who also broached the possibility of significantly raising permit fees.
Both the findings of Hawaii courts over the last two years and the legislation proposed by Kahele this session center around producing more scientific evidence to back up industry claims that aquarium fishing is not harming reef health or depleting fish populations.
Yet up until court rulings, the executive branch of state government stood staunchly behind scientific evidence gathered indicating the practice was sustainable.
Senate Bill 1240, introduced by Sen. Karl Rhoads (D-Oahu) in 2017, would have halted the issuance of new aquarium permits, limited the ability to transfer valid permits and essentially phased the industry out of existence over time.
The Legislature passed the bill, but Gov. David Ige vetoed the measure — in part on the advice of Bruce Anderson, who was then serving as the DLNR Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) administrator.
In the 1990s, the state passed laws establishing marine protected areas covering 35 percent of West Hawaii waters. Those laws were introduced by Rep. David Tarnas, a former legislator who rejoined the House this year as the representative for Hawaii Island’s 7th District.
Ige, Anderson, Tarnas and Bill Walsh, DAR aquatic biologist in Kona, have all said the some 7,000 surveys conducted by the state over nearly two decades following the establishment of marine protected areas in West Hawaii indicate aquarium fishing has proven sustainable.
“(People) suggesting there haven’t been studies done on this issue, I think those statements show a lack of understanding or an unwillingness to accept what has been done,” Anderson told West Hawaii Today in June 2017.
Industry representatives themselves have said they take only about 20 percent of relevant tropical fish species. But opponents of aquarium fishing — divers and members of conservation groups, among others — often cite anecdotal evidence as well as DLNR statistics indicating aquarium fish populations are on the decline.
Popular opinion has proven heavily skewed to one side of the issue. The Humane Society of the United States and For the Fishes conducted a survey in 2017, which found that 83 percent of residents polled said they were in favor of a permanent ban on aquarium fishing in Hawaii.